One is the son of a Fresno County farmer, the other the progeny of a dynastic political family.
Dissimilarities etch the lives and policy positions of Republican state Sen. Chuck Poochigian and his Democratic opponent in the campaign for state attorney general, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, the mercurial former California governor and frequent presidential aspirant.
The pair have waged this election season’s most clamorous battle. They’ve accused each other of flip-flops befitting a big-time wrestling match. Crime-fighting chops and character questions have become central themes in the contest to command the 1,100 attorneys in the state’s Department of Justice.
In the homestretch, the 68-year-old Brown has ridden his status as a venerable political celebrity to a healthy lead -- 15 points among likely voters in the most recent public polls.
But in Poochigian the GOP has a campaigner who vows to stay on the attack until election day Tuesday, despite dwindling funds for advertising and a reputation as a nice guy reluctant to throw mud.
“I remain convinced I’m going to win,” the Fresno Republican says.
Brown has spent his two mayoral terms attempting to recast his image as a crime fighter more interested in fixing public infrastructure than tilting at political windmills. Now he vows to be a “practical” and “common sense” attorney general.
“I love the law,” he said. “And I think the law is being undermined. We need to strengthen our Western legal tradition, emphasize the norms that give our society identity, structure.”
On Tuesday, Brown and Poochigian brought their campaigns to Los Angeles for dueling news conferences almost within earshot of each other.
Brown appeared with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton, adding the two high-profile leaders to his list of endorsements. His experience as a former governor and Oakland mayor, Villaraigosa said, makes Brown “somebody who knows the needs of city police departments.”
Minutes later, Poochigian held an impromptu news conference on a nearby street corner, repeating his criticism of Brown’s credentials for attorney general amid a sharp rise in Oakland’s murder rate. Poochigian highlighted his own endorsements from the California Peace Officers Assn. and the California State Sheriff’s Assn., among others.
For months, Poochigian has hit Brown with accusations new and three decades old. He portrays Brown as a flaky extremist, a man long opposed to the death penalty who has watched over a stratospheric murder spike this year in Oakland.
In turn, Brown has characterized Poochigian as a hard-right fanatic who opposed a ban on high-powered sniper rifles and fought the state’s successful 2004 ballot measure to publicly fund stem cell research, frequently sides against environmental interests and opposes abortion rights.
But around the Capitol, Poochigian is better known for collegiality than ideology. Friends say he’s as consistent as his favorite breakfast cereal: oatmeal.
His grandparents fled the Armenian genocide and the family eventually settled amid the grape fields of Fresno County. Poochigian, 57, grew up in Lone Star, a speck of a farm community along the railroad tracks southeast of Fresno.
After attending Cal State Fresno and law school, Poochigian became a business lawyer. He broke into politics in 1978, volunteering for George Deukmejian’s successful attorney general campaign, then became a gubernatorial aide to the conservative Deukmejian and later to Gov. Pete Wilson.
In private life, Poochigian has survived a few rough patches.
Around the time he first ventured into politics, he lost more than $100,000 in a failed business deal in Gusher Oil Co., a firm that drilled mostly in Texas. He and his partners were sued for nonpayment of a loan. It was “a bad investment,” he says today, that cost him more than his share to settle debts owed by a few investors who walked away.
Among his partners in Gusher Oil was attorney Richard Wyrick.
Poochigian rented his first office from the older man. When a Wyrick agricultural partnership was sued in 1983 in a dispute over $150,000 in rent on a farm, Poochigian represented him, settling the lawsuit.
Wyrick later ran afoul of the law and is serving a six-year sentence in Soledad state prison for pilfering clients’ trust funds.
“I haven’t talked to or seen that guy in 20 years,” Poochigian said. “I didn’t even know he was in prison.”
After years as a respected gubernatorial staffer, Poochigian ran for the Assembly in 1994 and won easily. He moved to the Senate in 1998, earning plaudits as a straight shooter who rarely strayed from the conservative cause.
During his tenure, he has backed tougher penalties for sexual predators, gun-toting felons and identity thieves. He also has opposed legislative efforts to roll back the state’s three-strikes law.
Throughout his career, Poochigian got rock-bottom scores from environmental groups but was tops with the California Chamber of Commerce and the state Farm Bureau. Answering attacks from Brown over his opposition to the stem cell ballot measure, Poochigian says it was on fiscal grounds.
Helping crime victims and upholding the death penalty are his top priorities.
A recent morning found Poochigian on the steps of the Capitol, surrounded by leaders of the victims rights movement. Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United, applauded Poochigian’s “unwavering record of support” and railed against Brown, who as governor signed a bill expanding the rights of prisoners but opposed a bill of rights for crime victims.
“Victims of crime have been a primary inspiration driving my candidacy,” Poochigian said. “My opponent has consistently fallen on the wrong side of the fence.”
Brown was born into California political royalty. Pat Brown, his father, was attorney general and governor during the 1950s and ‘60s, and his sister, Kathleen, served as state treasurer and ran for governor.
After a stint in seminary school, Brown attended Yale Law School. He won statewide office at 32, becoming secretary of state. He was governor at 36 and launched the first of three presidential runs before he was 40.
As governor, Brown jousted with the medfly, put death penalty antagonist Rose Bird on the state Supreme Court and saw his veto of a capital punishment bill overridden by the Legislature. But he presided at a time when criminal recidivism was a fraction of its current level.
His quirky style attracted as much attention as his policies. Brown renounced the governor’s mansion for a floor mattress in a rented apartment, dated singer Linda Ronstadt and acquired the nickname Gov. Moonbeam.
After a last failed presidential bid in 1992, Brown had his own Bay Area talk radio program. Executions by lethal injection, he proclaimed to his listeners, put the state at risk of seeming akin to Hitler’s Germany. He called corporate America “an out-of-control Frankenstein.”
During two terms at Oakland City Hall, Brown again has proved his consistent inconsistency. He embraced capitalism and served as head cheerleader for an urban housing boom in downtown Oakland. He pushed for more cops and lobbied for curfews on parolees and probationers. Felonies in the city of 412,000 fell from an annual average of about 40,000 in previous decades to about 28,000 on Brown’s watch.
Poochigian supporters say that’s spin. After an initial dip, crime has jumped during Brown’s second term, peaking this year. So far in 2006, Oakland has been hit by 124 homicides, more than double the mayor’s first year in office.
Foes in Oakland say Brown’s redevelopment agenda priced poor people out of housing. Meanwhile, the city’s deficit-stricken school district succumbed to a state takeover despite Brown’s intervention. And his relationship with some black leaders was icy from the start.
He was embraced by the real estate sector, which gave him roughly 20% of the more than $6 million he has raised for the attorney general race. Topping Brown’s donor list are developers who won city approval for big construction projects, sometimes weeks after giving to his campaign.
Brown insists he feels no obligation to his donors. As for the poor, Brown said, 2,400 affordable housing units were built or planned on his watch, a 30% increase over the 1990s. The rise in crime this year, he notes, mirrors a trend in neighboring Richmond and even San Francisco, across the bay.
The proof of his potency as a crime fighter, Brown said, is that “police in my city endorse me, and police in his city don’t endorse him. In fact, they endorse me.”
But to Poochigian and his supporters, Brown is a “fictional crime fighter” and a flip-flopper.
“At the core, Jerry Brown has no fixed principles,” charged Ken Khachigian, Poochigian’s campaign strategist.
In the 1992 presidential race, Brown was criticized for having served as a $20,000-a-year board director for the firm of Milan Panic, a wealthy biomedical executive and longtime contributor. Panic’s firm had agreed to pay a $400,000 government penalty for falsely promoting an AIDS drug. Brown also acknowledged that he telephoned Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) in a bid to help resolve Panic’s dispute with the government over the drug.
Brown downplays the episode and calls Panic “an outstanding individual and friend of mine.”
Poochigian’s campaign team also cites Brown’s three-decade relationship with Jacques Barzaghi, a former French soldier and the Democrat’s political factotum since statehouse days.
After a female co-worker accused Barzaghi of sexual harassment, the Oakland city manager suspended him for three weeks without pay. Brown questioned the credibility of Barzaghi’s accuser, a mother of three.
It was three more years before Brown fired his trusted advisor after Barzaghi’s 30-year-old wife told police he had tried to push her down the stairs during a domestic dispute.
“I handled that fine,” Brown said. “Would I do anything different? Nothing that comes to mind.”
Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.
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